Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Failed Comic Strip

 Over the years, I've read and heard stories about who is responsible for the inclusion of Superman in Action Comics #1.
   Was it Sheldon Mayer, who is said to have "rescued" the strip from the McClure Syndicate slush pile and convinced the DC owners to use it? 
   Or DC editor Vin Sullivan, who purchased that first story? 
   Perhaps it was Max "Charlie" Gaines, the man credited with creating the comic book?
   Or Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the original owner of what became DC Comics, who supposedly saw the great potential of the character and couldn't wait to use it.
   Then there are Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who, many believe, stole the company from the Major -- did they do it to get the Man of Steel because they knew what a gold mine he would be?
   Whichever it was, if any of them, it would seem that the only ones who didn't realize just how great Superman would be were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the character, because they sold all their rights to the character for the $130 they were paid for that first story.

   All of these men were involved in the beginnings of what would become a cornerstone of the comic book business. Hindsight being 20/20, each of them remembered being the one who was responsible. If all (or any) of them were convinced about what a hit Superman would be, how do you explain the fact that he did not appear on the cover of Action again until #7?

   Superman appeared again on #s 10, 13, 15 and 17, but did not begin his consecutive appearances until #19 in the autumn of 1939. By that time Superman #1 had been published and they all seemed to agree that he -- not explorers, ships and planes, or gorillas -- should be the main selling point of Action Comics.

   As for Siegel and Shuster, public perception has them as a pair of gullible teenagers, rooked out of millions of dollars by evil businessmen. In reality, in 1938 they were both in their twenties and had already been working for DC for a couple of years, turning out the adventures of Slam Bradley, Doctor Occult, Federal Men and Spy for a variety of titles. (They had, by the way, sold the rights to those characters the same way they sold the rights to Superman; it was the standard of the comic book business then and for many years after.)
   When Action #1 was being put together, Superman was a four-year-old failed comic strip. Siegel and Shuster had tried, quite unsuccessfully, to sell it to various syndicates. Whether it was still sitting at McClure, from which Sheldon Mayer supposedly rescued it, or in a closet in Siegel's apartment, or somewhere else does not matter. Its creators were busy turning out work that they got paid for, not vainly trying to sell something no one wanted.
   So put yourself in their shoes. The country's in a depression. You're trying to make a living writing and drawing comic books. Wheeler-Nicholson / Mayer / Sullivan / Gaines / Liebowitz / Donenfeld (your choice) says he wants to use that old story and give the character a regular slot in a monthly title. Here's $130 (equivalent to about $2,100 today) and a promise of steady work. What would you do?

   Despite many claims to the contrary through the years, nobody knew then what would happen with Superman or the comic book business. A decade later, when the success of the Man of Steel was obvious, Siegel and Shuster no doubt regretted what they'd done. Had they gotten better legal and financial advice when they opted to sue for the rights in the '40s, they no doubt could have negotiated a lucrative deal.
   In the spring of 1938, however, they, like everyone else in this new business, just hoped they would have steady work and make some money. But there were no guarantees, so you grabbed whatever came along.


  1. What a lot of people overlook is the fact that S&S earned far more than the average annual wage for the time. I think back in the early '40s, it was less than $2000 (or thereabouts) and S&S were earning in excess of $25,000-$30,000 - each. So they were hardly hard-done-to. I don't think anyone in 1938 had the faintest idea how popular Superman was going to become. It was initially just regarded as another strip to fill out a new magazine.

    My first visit to your blog. I'm adding it to my list.

  2. From all I've ever read, I think we can eliminate Donenfeld and Liebowitz as the ones who decided to use the Superman story. And wasn't the Major already out of the picture by that point? I can't see Gaines giving it a thought, really. So that narrows it down to Mayer and Sullivan. From what I've heard and read, both were pretty hands-on as far as straddling both the creative and business sides. Almost a coin flip here but I'm leaning toward Sullivan. He had been working with Jerry and Joe on their other strips and either he asked if they had anything else or Jerry offered and then...Maybe?